Mangalore Grows Up - "Life is Calling" By Aravind Adiga

19 December 2006

The man was wearing a mundu, a white sarong, and a blue singlet, and he had been watching me from his balcony for several minutes. He was curious, perhaps even a little worried. Finally, he came to his door, and shouted : "What do you want?" I smiled apologetically.
"I'm looking for my home," I said. "I think you're living in it." With a frown, he listened. My family, I explained, had built a home of our own here in the neighborhood of Kodialguttu, just before I left Mangalore in 1991. This was the first time I had come back since then, and I wanted to see that house again. It was a two-floor structure with a slanted roof. I had been searching Kodialguttu for half an hour, but I hadn't found it: in fact, I couldn't recognize the neighborhood at all. I remembered a large paddy field that flooded during the monsoons; that was why our friends had advised us against building a home here. When we finished the house, it was the first completed building in the paddy field, and you could see it from a couple of miles around. Instead of that paddy field, I now saw shopping malls, colleges, apartment blocks and a giant convention center sheathed in glass, that claimed to have Asia's largest auditorium. His house, I said, was the only thing that looked remotely like my old home. Had he bought it from my father? "I'm sorry," he said. "I built it myself, eight years ago."

My story had excited him. He put on a shirt, and together we went looking—in vain—for my house. I told him how bewildered I was by the way Mangalore had changed, and he agreed. Things had changed so much, and so fast, he said. In the beginning he was proud that Mangalore was becoming a city, but now "even we, who stayed back, get confused," he said. "Even we wonder sometimes, what city this is that we're now living in."

Strange things are happening to towns throughout India. Mangalore is no exception. Over the next few days, walking about the streets of my hometown for the first time in 15 years, I discovered that the disappearance of paddy fields like the one in Kodialguttu was a common occurrence. There were new shopping malls, office high-rises and modern apartment buildings everywhere—and most of the construction had taken place in the past five years. Old houses had been uprooted, and old landmarks were gone: the Hotel Woodside, famous for its racy cabaret—one of the few sinful pleasures in a conservative town—had just been demolished. There was no shortage, however, of sinful pleasure to replace it. New bars and restaurants were everywhere, and the town's first multiplex cinema was about to open. life is calling announced a giant Smirnoff poster in the center of town. It all went to prove what I had gradually come to realize in my travels around India as a reporter: that to understand how quickly and explosively the economic boom is creating a new country, you have to leave the major cities and visit places that few foreigners have even heard of—places like Mangalore.

After a decade of rapid growth, Mangalore is now a provincial city with a population of more than half a million. Back in 1991, when I left, about 300,000 people lived there. It was a somewhat larger version of any of the towns that dotted the Indian coastline from Goa to Kerala: hot, hilly, carpeted in coconut palms, and not fully comfortable with the late 20th century (movie theaters, for example, were still called "talkies"). Mangaloreans lived with their extended families in great tiled mansions built by their grandfathers. They went to the schools their fathers had gone to, wearing the uniforms their brothers had worn. It was a modest town. The only immoderate thing about it was monsoon season, which blasted us from June through September each year, flooding roads and closing down schools.

The population was mostly Hindu, but there were large Catholic and Muslim minorities. Young men of all religions were united by shared values of hard work, enterprise, and a desire to get out of Mangalore as quickly as possible. There were no jobs in town—unless you wanted to work in the local tile-making or beedi-rolling factories—and so even the most sluggish youth would eventually crawl over to Bangalore, the state capital; others went to Bombay, Dubai or the U.S. My brother left when he was 18. I left when I was 16. Many of those who got out never returned. There was no need to go back because the place never seemed to change.

But the past decade has seen extraordinary change—and extraordinary excess—in Mangalore. Although the city is full of new shopping malls and apartment buildings, the defining excess—and this is quintessentially Indian—has been in education. Mangalore had one medical college when I left; it now has five. In addition, the city has at least four dental colleges and 14 physiotherapy colleges; an additional 350 schools, colleges and polytechnics are listed in its yellow pages. Every Mangalorean entrepreneur, it seems, has moved into the education business. Dining at my favorite hotel of the old days, Srinivas, I noticed that it too had set up colleges for physiotherapy and hotel management.

A lot of the new colleges, predictably, focus on computer education. Many young Mangaloreans have gone to Bangalore to join India's high-tech industry, and local colleges tempt young recruits with the prospect of rewards that would have been inconceivable before the outsourcing boom. An ad for one of the new polytechnics features a handsome young Westerner, and a caption that says: HE IS A NETWORK AND SECURITY ADMINISTRATOR. HE DRAWS MORE THAN $80,000 P.A. GET SERIOUS—THIS COULD BE YOU!

Of course, most of these $80,000-per-annum jobs are not found in Mangalore, but even within town there are fresh options for young graduates. A few outsourcing companies have opened shop there, including tech giant Infosys, and more are on their way. A flood of new money has arrived, thanks to the combination of outsourcing jobs, fee-paying college students from around India, surging real estate prices, and expatriate remittances. As a result, many locals have suddenly become middle class, upper-middle class, or even rich. Of course, they need ways to announce this good fortune to others. The new apartment buildings, which are generally ugly and unimaginative, are sold as status symbols and given fancy names like Lexington Manor. One ad for "premium luxury apartments" promises: IF YOU'RE IN LIMELIGHT, THIS SUITS YOU THE BEST. AND IF YOU'RE NOT, THIS PUTS YOU IN LIMELIGHT.

It's easy to laugh at such pretensions, and easy to mourn the disappearance of the graceful houses where most Mangaloreans used to live. But I remember what it was like in those mansions, how your one desire was to get out and live in your own place. Everyone had wanted this independence, but few had achieved it back then: it had taken my family half a decade to build a home of our own, even though my father was a well-paid surgeon. Things were different now: everyone seemed to own their own place. And when friends and relatives saw me, the first thing they did was invite me to see their home.

One of the house-proud was Leo Fernandes, my old teacher at St. Aloysius. The last time I had visited him, 15 years ago, he had been staying in a house that he rented from the school; now he invited me to a bright, clean apartment he had recently purchased in one of the city's high-rises. Over candy and pink lemonade, he spoke excitedly about the transformation he had witnessed in Mangalore—how the town had become bigger, almost like Bombay in parts, and how the school had shared in this improvement. For a start, it had opened a massive new computer block. Life had changed in other ways, too, as Mangaloreans grew wealthier, more modern and more hurried. "All the other teachers have bikes. Some even have cars," said Leo. "Only I still walk."

Noticing that I wasn't wearing a watch, he suddenly recalled: "You never wore a watch even in school. I always wondered about that. You were a doctor's son, yet you never wore a watch, like other rich boys would."

"My father didn't let me buy a watch," I told him. "He thought it was an extravagance for a schoolboy."

We both smiled at the innocence of those days.

"Boys now have everything," Leo said. "Computers, bikes, everything. But they don't study as hard as your generation did. Already the old days are a distant memory. You used to talk to your neighbors—they were your family. The people who live around me now, I have no idea who they are. I went to talk to them once, and they didn't have time. After that I gave up."

Others spoke in a similar way of an older, simpler life that was disappearing. I met neighbors, relatives and classmates, and each had done well in some way we couldn't have imagined in the 1980s—one owned his own house, one had a car of his own. But each also had some sorrow we could hardly have imagined. A Catholic friend's daughter had married a Hindu and her family no longer spoke to her. One Hindu friend's daughter had been divorced by her husband. Divorce, extramarital affairs, inter-religious marriages, homosexual flings—the doors of experience had swung open in Mangalore. The small town had grown up.

It had become more complicated and conflicted in other ways, too. At the Nehru Maidan, an open space in the center of town, I watched kids playing cricket. Among the spectators was a group of drifters and homeless men, some of them carrying rolled-up mattresses. Growing up, I had not seen many beggars around Mangalore, which had largely avoided the crushing poverty and inequality of larger cities. Yet it now had a slum that had not existed back then. Most Mangaloreans I spoke with shrugged off the arrival of so many poor people; they were said to be immigrant workers, drawn by the construction boom, and they were expected to go away again in the future. Nobody, it seemed, was ready to acknowledge the possibility that the city might now have a permanent underclass that the boom has left behind.

For better or worse, Mangalore's fate is now in the hands of outsiders. "Tier-two cities" like Mangalore, Cochin, Mysore and Trivandrum are believed to hold the key to the future of the Indian outsourcing industry. With wages rising in big cities like Bangalore and Bombay, tech companies must expand fast in these lower-cost cities. But Mangalore faces the same problem as other small cities with aspirations of becoming outsourcing hubs: It's not an exciting place to live. "Lifestyle is a challenge when you're trying to get people from outside to stay here," Sudhir Albuquerque told me. Albuquerque, an Infosys executive, was taking me around the Mangalore campus, which has 1,800 employees and is the city's most significant tech presence.

"But things are changing," he said. "There is a night life now in Mangalore. There are bars and lounges." He had hopes, too, that the multiplex cinema would make outsiders more willing to live there. Albuquerque added: "There are things you can do here that you can't dream of doing in a big city like Bangalore. For instance, you can still go home for lunch, which I do on most days." But even that may become a thing of the past. Infosys is planning to move to a new, larger campus soon; from there, Albuquerque said sadly, he wouldn't be able to pop home at lunchtime.

The new Infosys project is just one of a flood of investments that may be heading to Mangalore, including a proposed special economic zone. In anticipation, the airport is already being expanded and may soon be upgraded to international status. I asked Mohandas Pai, a senior executive at Infosys, what he thought Mangalore would look like in a decade. "It will grow. It will be a city of maybe two million people ... an international city," he said. But these dazzling prospects could still be derailed, Pai added. "The key to Mangalore is infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. The roads have got to get better; the airport too. If connectivity gets better, then companies will come here, and then there will be jobs here, at last. Bright people have always left Mangalore. But once the jobs are created, then the prodigal sons of Mangalore will come home, one by one, and the city will really take off."

Before leaving Mangalore again, I decided to visit Court Road once more. This small, steep, winding road—which connects my old primary school at St. Aloysius to the high school up the hill—is a physical embodiment, for me, of a rite of passage. I had gone up this road as a 13-year-old on my first day at high school. Now, as I remembered that day, I stopped to stare at the junglelike vegetation on the hillside, pausing to admire a giant banyan tree with its thick aerial branches wrapped in serpentlike creepers. A hawk flew overhead; there was the smell of raw neem all around. This must have been what Mangalore looked like in 1880 when the Jesuit priests came to this hill to build their school.

I got to the top of the hill, and from there I had a fine view of the city. Two decades ago, when you stood at a high point like this and looked down on Mangalore, the city's puny buildings all vanished, submerged beneath a canopy of coconut palms. That was when you felt a sense of contempt for Mangalore and dreamed of going somewhere big. But now, smashing through the coconut trees, were things unimaginable in my boyhood: enormous white- and pink-colored towers, either apartments or office blocks. Next to them were new towers, still under construction—unpainted concrete structures with dozens of metal rods sticking out of their sides, as if they were ripping a path for themselves through the trees. You cannot feel contempt for Mangalore now. You have to feel a sense of amazement and awe at how profoundly it has changed. But if you look a bit longer at the scene, you cannot avoid a faint inkling, either, of something like fear.

"Life is Calling" By Aravind Adiga source


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